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Imposing a tax for police who already patrol streets

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

Here’s a nice sound bite for any politician.

“There’s no reason 98 percent of the people in Cook County should pay for police services for the 2 percent who live in unincorporated areas.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is threatening residents of unincorporated areas with a property tax hike to help pay for the sheriff’s police who patrol their streets.

She said those residents would also have the options of hiring another police agency to patrol or annexing into a nearby suburb.

That sounds good at first.

But those people in unincorporated areas already are paying Cook County taxes, including something called a public safety tax.

Mick Kelly, a resident of unincorporated Orland Township, wants to know why he has to pay for Stroger Hospital and county health care clinics when he doesn’t use them. Let everyone pay for the county services they use, Kelly says, and he would be a happy camper.

There’s actually a lot about Preckwinkle’s plan I don’t understand.

I do understand she’s under pressure to cut her budget by about 
$315 million.

When I asked her office how much the sheriff’s department spends patrolling unincorporated Cook County, I was told 
$46 million.

Neil Khare, director of policy for Preckwinkle, said the sheriff by state law is required to be the “conservator of the peace” in Cook County.

Khare said when Preckwinkle’s office asked Sheriff Tom Dart for a minimum figure to fulfill that legal requirement, Dart told them 
$32 million. Most of that money is spent patrolling the unincorporated areas, according to Khare.

That $32 million will not be impacted by the county’s new policy of collecting money from unincorporated areas. The money coming from them would make up a portion of that $14 million over the baseline requirement.

In theory, the county would create special service areas (a sort of special taxing district) in unincorporated areas — where about 98,000 residents now live — to pay for the program.

It estimates that it would have to collect $50 on average for each person living in the special service areas, or about $150 a home. Homes with higher property value would pay more; those with lower value would pay less.

I asked Khare if the county could legally impose a special service area on residents without them voting on it.

“In the opinion of our legal staff, we have the authority to create these special service areas by ordinance,” he said.

Because the county doesn’t expect to implement this new policy for at least six months into fiscal 2012, it would save $5.5 million during that fiscal year. The savings in the first full fiscal year of the plan, 2013, would be $11 million.

Preckwinkle seems to be hoping that most of the unincorporated homeowners will opt to annex into a neighboring suburb. But that’s not as simple as it sounds.

Kelly said his area of unincorporated Orland Township has wanted to annex to Orland Park for more than a decade, but its sewer and water system is controlled by American Water. He said it’s his understanding that Orland Park doesn’t want to pay American Water for its sewer and water lines.

Residents of the area would be happy to get rid of American Water because its rates are the highest in the state.

Other unincorporated areas have wells that would have to be replaced by sewer and water lines before they were annexed to a town.

Residents would have to approve a bond issue to complete such work and pay for it over a period of 20 years or more. That’s another costly tax on them.

If all of this were going to save the county some real money over the long haul, I could understand it.

But the county still is going to be paying $32 million to have the sheriff’s department patrol unincorporated areas.

I don’t know what those sheriff’s officers are going to be doing if the unincorporated areas pay other agencies for police protection.

The costs of government keep going up. More fees. More taxes.

But the quality of the services keeps declining. At the same time, the income of taxpayers keeps going down.

I would bet 98 percent of the people always feel like they’re paying for the other 2 percent.

Government is supposed to provide the safety net for all of us.

Instead, political leaders keep cutting holes in that net, patching them up and telling us it is sound.

It sure doesn’t look that way to those of us swinging on the trapeze.

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